Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Eunice Kennedy Shriver (born 1921) was one of the founders of the Special Olympics, which provided physical training and competition to mentally challenged athletes. She worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for mentally challenged people and to provide them with opportunities to achieve, to become productive citizens, and to be respected members of their communities.

Shriver was one of nine children born to Rose and Joseph Kennedy on July 10, 1921, in Brookline, Massachusetts. In her wealthy and politically powerful family, public service was an honored tradition. One of her brothers, John F. Kennedy, became president of the United States; two others, Robert F. and Edward M. Kennedy, were U.S. senators. All the Kennedy children were expected to compete and excel. Harrison Rainie and John Quinn, in their book Growing Up Kennedy: The Third Wave Comes of Age, quoted her as saying, "The important thing was win-don't come in second or third, that doesn't count-but win, win, win."

Most of the children followed this advice, entering public service or other competitive occupations. One child, however, did not. Shriver's sister, Rosemary, was born with mild mental retardation. As time went on and the children grew up, it became more and more apparent to the entire family, and perhaps to Rosemary herself, that she would never be able to keep up with her siblings. Gradually, Rosemary became more difficult to handle, hitting people and smashing things and, on one occasion, attacking her grandmother.

Rosemary underwent brain surgery in an effort to make her more calm. According to Peter Collier and David Horowitz in The Kennedys: An American Drama, the operation did reduce her rage, but it "made her go from being mildly retarded to very retarded." Rosemary, now unable to function except at a very childlike level, needed constant care. Joe and Rose Kennedy decided to commit their daughter to St. Coletta's, an institution in Wisconsin.

Everyone in the family was affected by Rosemary's condition; they all became more aware of the needs of mentally challenged people. Shriver, in particular, saw that mentally challenged people can often accomplish quite a lot. "Of all the family," Rainie and Quinn remarked, "Eunice is the one who has been the most attentive to seeing and occasionally caring for Rosemary."


A Sense of Social Justice

Shriver was a devoted Catholic and had a strong sense of social justice. When she was 26, she ran a juvenile agency. Later she lived in a West Virginia prison so that she could understand the prisoners' lives. When prisoners were let out on work release, she welcomed them to her home, even after one of them robbed her. Shriver married R. Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps and U.S. ambassador to France. He shared her religious views as well as her sense of social responsibility and commitment to helping mentally challenged people.

Shriver's brother, President John F. Kennedy, also had a vision of helping mentally challenged people and their families. In 1961, Shriver helped to establish the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation. In a news conference on October 11, 1961, Kennedy said, "This condition strikes those least able to protect themselves from it.… At one time, there was practically no effective program in the field of mental retardation. Whenever possible, the children were committed to institutions. They were segregated from normal society and forgotten, except by members of their family.… They suffered from lack of public understanding and they suffered from lack of funds."


Camp Timberlawn

In June 1963, Shriver and her husband began a summer day camp at Timberlawn, the Rockville, Maryland home that they rented. The house was a huge Civil War-era mansion with over 200 acres of grounds. For five weeks every summer, 50 to 60 mentally challenged children and adults came to Camp Timberlawn. The camp had a song, a flag-raising ceremony, and many activities including swimming, baseball, soccer, volleyball, and an obstacle course. All campers had companions, usually teenagers, who helped them with activities and made sure they didn't get hurt.

The day camp was so successful in showing that mentally challenged people could benefit from sports and recreational programs, that Shriver, with the help of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, decided to expand it throughout the United States. The Kennedy family had created the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation in 1946 to honor the memory of Shriver's oldest brother, who was killed in a plane crash while serving in World War II. The foundation aimed to prevent mental retardation and to improve the lives of mentally challenged people.

In 1962, Shriver created the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Awards in Mental Retardation, and the National Institutes for Child Health and Human Development. Between 1963 and 1968, the Foundation provided grants to aid more than 80 public and private organizations in creating and administering similar day camps for mentally challenged people.

The Kennedy administration began testing the fitness of American school children, giving those who passed the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. Shriver was inspired to give similar tests to physically challenged children, providing silver, gold, and champ awards. This led to the idea of a physical training program and Olympic competition for physically challenged people.

Since 1964, the Chicago Park District had been an enthusiastic participant in the day camp programs. In January 1968, the District asked for a grant to fund an event to be held in a Chicago park. Shriver invited the District's representatives to Washington, where she told them that she approved their plan, but wanted to expand it to an international competition that would be called the "Special Olympics." The Foundation awarded the Chicago Park District a grant to develop and run the first Special Olympics Games.


The Special Olympics

The first International Special Olympics Games were held on July 19 and 20, 1968, at Chicago's Soldier Field, with funding from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and the Chicago Park District. One thousand athletes from 26 U.S. states and Canada competed in track and field events, hockey, and aquatic sports. Shriver, perhaps remembering her father's overemphasis on winning at all costs, modified the definition of "winning" for these games. All competitors in the Special Olympics were "winners," simply because they entered the competition. "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt," is the oath taken by athletes in the Special Olympics. Shriver's son, Tim, told Rainie and Quinn, "The best way to describe it is that you are expected to push, push, push, and do your best." As he told interviewer Oprah Winfrey, "Special Olympics is about … saying it's not what you're born with but what you bring to the table. If you run that race with everything God gave you, you've won."

Frank Gifford, in a foreword to the book Skill, Courage, Sharing, Joy: The Stories of Special Olympics, explained, "No person is too handicapped to take part in Special Olympics. Each competes to the extent of his or her abilities. And no achievement is too small, no time too slow. What these true Olympians may lack in speed or strength, they more than make up for with their effort and determination." He quoted Shriver, who said, "In a world where poverty, war, and oppression have dimmed people's hopes, Special Olympic athletes rekindle that hope with their spiritual strength, their excellence, and achievements. For as we hope for the best in them, hope is reborn in us."

Shriver wrote in her foreword to Readings in Special Olympics, "Special Olympians and their families are challenging the common wisdom that says only intellectual achievement is the measure of human life. They have proved that the common wisdom is wrong. Special Olympians and their families-more than one million of them-are proof that the value of human life should be measured in many ways."

The Games were so successful that in December 1968, Special Olympics International became an official nonprofit organization and a Special Olympics chapter was organized in every U.S. state, as well as in Canada and France. The program has grown phenomenally and is now known around the world. In the 1995 World Summer Games in New Haven, Connecticut, almost 7,000 athletes from 130 countries competed with the help of 2,000 coaches, 15,000 family members and friends, 450,000 volunteers, 500,000 spectators and 1,500 media members. Millions of people watched the games on television. As of 1999, more than one million athletes in 50 U.S. states and 150 countries competed in 26 sports; more than 15,000 games, meets, and tournaments were held during the year.

The Special Olympics movement embodies quality training and high levels of sportsmanship. Because of its commitment, it is the only sports organization that has received approval from the International Olympic Committee to use the word "Olympics" in its title. Its goals have expanded as society began to realize what mentally challenged people could accomplish. Currently, Special Olympics athletes also coach, officiate at events, give speeches, and hold regular jobs. As the Special Olympics Quarterly Newsletter from Spring/Summer of 1998 notes, "They surprise the world around them with their abilities! Today's Special Olympics movement does not exist for the athlete, but with the athlete-for they are the future, the leaders, the heroes as the movement reaches out to people with mental retardation all over the world."


The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center

In 1969, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center was founded. It was one of the first mental retardation and developmental disabilities research centers and university-affiliated programs in the United States. The Center conducts basic research to determine how biological and environmental factors influence human development, with a special influence on mental retardation and other developmental disabilities. In addition, the Center provides training and service programs for people with developmental disabilities and their families. President Ronald Reagan awarded Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work "on behalf of America's least powerful people, the mentally retarded."


Gratitude and Admiration

In 1995, Shriver was scheduled to speak to a gathering at Yale University as the 1995 Kiphuth Fellowship Speaker. The Kiphuth Foundation honors people who are distinguished in sports, literature, or the arts. Because she was ill at the time, her husband spoke for her. Mr. Shriver spoke about the beauty and purity of the Special Olympics, comparing them to professional sports. "The professional athlete doesn't really play the sport any more, but just goes out there to do his job and earn a living" he told Richard Seltenreich of the Yale Daily News. He praised his wife's dedication to expanding the lives of people with mental retardation through sports: "Through sports she brought out the best in others, giving them a friend and now a coach."

Quinn and Rainie quoted Shriver's nephew, Bobby Kennedy, who said, "She should have been president. She is the most impressive figure in the family. She has a carefully constructed set of values and she will not budge from them. She is highly principled in ways that are more sophisticated than anyone in the family. If you ask, most of my brothers, sisters, and cousins would say they'd like to be like her."

When a Toronto reporter asked Shriver how she felt about the athletes who take part in the games, she said, "I feel a sense of gratitude, a sense of admiration. I am very energized by them."

Further Reading on Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Cipriano, Robert, Readings in Special Olympics, Special Learning Corporation, 1980.

Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama, Summit Books, 1984.

Davis, John H., The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster 1848-1983, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.

Rainie, Harrison, and John Quinn, Growing Up Kennedy: The Third Wave Comes of Age, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

Single, Doug, Skill, Courage, Sharing, Joy: The Stories of Special Olympics, Special Olympics International, 1992.

Who's Who of American Women, Marquis, 1998.

"Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver," The National Women's Hall of Fame, (March 2, 1999).

"Founding of the National Mental Retardation Research Centers," National Mental Retardation Research Centers, (March 2, 1999).

"Mission Statement," Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, (March 2, 1999).

"Origins of Special Olympics," Special Olympics, (March 2, 1999).

"Shriver Lauds Special Olympics," Yale Daily News, (March 2, 1999).

"Special Athletes," Oprah, (March 2, 1999).

"Special Olympics History," Special Olympics, (March 2, 1999).

"Welcome to Special Olympics," Special Olympics, (March 2, 1999).